Japan (1950) Dir. Akira Kurosawa
Celebrities have never had a great relationship with the press, for better or worse. The public rely on the media to inform them in an impartial manner and hold the corrupt and venal to account for their actions with some impunity from state censure. Unfortunately, the media appears to apply this to people’s private lives too, habitually making stories out of nothing if it makes for good copy.
Whilst painting in the mountains, artist Ichiro Aoye (Toshiro Mifune) encounters classical singer Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi), who has missed a bus to her next destination. Since Ichiro is heading to the same place, he offers Miyako a ride on his motorbike which she accepts, taking in an overnight stop at a hotel. Two paparazzi from Amour magazine witness their arrival and ask for an interview which Miyako rejects.
Feeling slighted, the paparazzi take a photo of Miyako and Ichiro enjoying breakfast on the hotel balcony and Amour publish it with a story declaring Ichiro to be Miyako’s secret love. A furious Ichiro decides to sue Amour, whose editor Asai (Shinichi Himori) says he’ll defend the freedom of the press. Ichiro hires a down and out lawyer Hiruta (Takashi Shimura) after learning his daughter Masako (Yoko Katsuragi) is ill with TB. Asai also hears of this and offers Hiruta a 10,000 yen bribe to throw the trial.
Akira Kurosawa never really struck me an angry man so it with some surprise to learn Scandal was made in response to what he felt was the Japanese press adopting Western attitudes in their blatant invasion of personal lives and using press licence as a cover to print lies. Kurosawa took it upon himself to fight back following the poor treatment of an actress in the tabloid media which he took great exception to.
Luckily, Kurosawa was too clever not to be obvious with his targets, who may have been plenty in number, beginning with making the press victim a singer and not an actress. One thing that stands out is how Miyako doesn’t seem interested in litigation for fear of her private life being front page news, which is natural, rather than defending her right to that privacy.
Japan tends to put their celebs on a higher pedestal than we in the west, where even the slightest whiff of misbehaviour is deemed shameful enough to kill a career. That Miyako might have a lover should not be a big deal but Japan likes its female stars to be pure, although how anyone is supposed to date and marry and not incur fan disapproval is a conundrum even Stephen Hawking would have struggled with.
There is an amusing moment as Miyako visits Ichiro’s art exhibition hoping to see him, disguised by a face mask the likes seen currently during the pandemic. This is enough apparently to allow Miyako to travel incognito until Ichiro’s friend/life art model Sumie (Noriko Sengoku) recognises her, causing a sudden commotion among those who failed to recognise Miyako before!
Ichiro is not so famous an artist that his reputation will suffer, and has much thicker skin than Miyako, storming the Amour offices and decking editor Asai. This itself creates another media storm but Ichiro won’t back down, taking it all in his stride whilst Miyako laments the cruel letters from fans and even her own mother believing her daughter is a scarlet woman.
Hiruta is the bridge between the two moral sides, being a lawyer who approached Ichiro to represent him because of his disgust at the issue but when confronted with a chance to help his sick daughter, he took it. Hiruta isn’t necessarily corrupt, only weak in that he had to put Misako first. With little money, shabby attire, and his office being a shack on a roof top of another business, everything about Hiruta would suggest he may not be the best man for the job, but meeting Masako convinces Ichiro otherwise.
Unlike other films based around court cases, Kurosawa leaves it until twenty minutes from the end to begin his, and only then, it is a rushed affair. The build up is also quite frustrating in that Miyako rarely appears, leaving no real discussion between her and Ichiro about the case, not sow the seeds of any inclination from Miyako to file her own action against Amour in solidarity.
Since the film is set at the end of 1949, part of the story revolves around Hiruta’s guilt over taking the bribe as Masako gets sicker, leading to him drowning his sorrows at a pub on Christmas Eve with Ichiro. The post pub stagger home sees the sozzled duo play tribute to It’s A Wonderful Life to boost Hiruta’s confidence ahead of the trial, and indeed, there is something quite Capra-esque in how the whole thing pays out in the final act in what is arguably Kurosawa at his most Hollywood.
Given the subject and target Kurosawa was aiming at, it feels like a missed opportunity not to make the trial the primary focus of the film. Masako’s illness may be a cheap tactic to frame Hiruta’s feeble resolve but he needed a motive for his malfeasance that wasn’t pure selfishness, unlike Asai. Ideally, the true scope of this could have been shown during the trial in full, instead of the few morsels given us.
Relying on two of his most familiar and reliable collaborators to bring the weight when necessary and rare moments of levity, Kurosawa puts Toshiro Mifune in what is one of his most “normal” roles yet, insofar as Ichiro often slinks into the background unnoticed, whilst Takashi Shimura steals every scene a Hiruta, foreshadowing his role as a similar character in Ikiru two years later.
A lesser known Kurosawa film Scandal is enjoyable enough, though the potential for it to be a much meatier affair is evident and unusually for the great director, not taken up. Worth a look to see a different side to Kurosawa.